Magazine | May 6, 2019, Issue

Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1: Recap

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in Game of Thrones (Helen Sloan/HBO)

This episode opened with echoes of the first episode of the first season — a small child running through the village as a royal procession makes its way to the castle in the North, in preparation for the final battle to come. It’s a satisfying and tension-filled parade, with (almost) all of the characters we’ve loved and hated over the past few years finally gathering together, in a kind of uneasy unity.

But for all of the pageantry and protestations of peace and common cause, it’s impossible to watch the episode without remembering that most of these characters will not make it to the series finale. Even those who manage to navigate the treacherous and deadly politics of the final six episodes will end up facing almost-certain death in the grand battle against the undead king.

It’s clear, for instance, in the first moments of this episode that the power and momentum is entirely with Bernie Sanders. He arrives in Winterfell a wiser and more battle-tested warrior and the obvious front-runner.

But is he too battle-worn? Given to outbursts and paranoia, he seems like a figure from yesterday. For instance, he has essentially zero dragons, while his chief rival, Kamala Harris, has two of them. One of Harris’s dragons is her law-and-order credentials, the result of her earlier career as a public prosecutor. The other dragon is her quirky and intriguing ethnicity — not exactly Westeros, not exactly Dothraki — that contrasts well with the tired and sagging Bernie Sanders. She seems sleek and poised, he seems like a guy who can’t eat a sandwich without inadvertently spitting most of it on his lunch partner’s shirt.

Now that the High Sparrow is dead and the period of fundamentalist religious revival is gone, audiences are more willing to see Mayor Pete, the Unpronounceable, as a potential winner of the Game. He has some terrific moments in the first episode, though longtime Game of Thrones watchers know that this is often a setup — the producers like to take an early audience favorite and kill him or her off in spectacular fashion. Be forewarned: Don’t fall in love with this guy.

Cory Booker, who fell on his head in childhood, sits quietly for most of the episode, staring out into the middle distance, seeing the future but unable to clarify in any useful way what, exactly, he’s talking about. Booker is a long shot to win the Game of Thrones — mostly because of his head injury — and it’s clear that the people of Winterfell have a hard time taking him seriously.

Unlike Maester Elizabeth Warren, whom they take too seriously. In this early episode, at least, she’s left in the library, writing tracts and treatises that no one will read. In one pivotal and revealing scene, she looks up from her writing to discover that she’s not alone. Next to her are Eric Swalwell and Tim Ryan. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be with the third-tier candidates?” She asks. “We are,” they say. It’s a powerful moment when Maester Warren realizes that she’s a third-tier candidate. The camera lingers on her, and we see her spirit and enthusiasm slowly drain from her face.

Spoiler alert! The camera pans over two lifeless bodies as two other unidentified characters dig their graves. If you pause the image, it looks a lot like John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand are the bodies and Tulsi Gabbard and Jay Inslee are the gravediggers, though on subsequent viewings it seems possibly the other way around. And that’s what’s so great about Game of Thrones — so many layers of meaning!

Joe Biden, First of His Name to Go to College (Unconfirmed), wanders aimlessly through this episode, mumbling apologies and offering back rubs. He has aged a great deal since Season 7, but in a few quick moments we see a glint of the familiar Joe — and it’s clear that the producers (and maybe Joe himself) are encouraging us to underestimate him, perhaps preparing us for his eventual victory.

And what of the evil princess who isn’t there? We don’t see much of her in this early episode — she appears briefly, in her palace in Chappaqua, receiving news from the North that the battle plans are not going well. Hillary Clinton, always plotting and planning many moves ahead, smiles contentedly. She is content for now to watch the others wrangle and conspire. But it’s clear to the audience that she will, before the Game of Thrones comes to a conclusion, be a powerful and malevolent force once again.

Coming up: Season 8, Episode 2: Klobuchar and Warren scheme against a hapless Cory Booker, while Gray Eminence Biden makes an affable (but untrustworthy) peace with Beto O’Rourke, whom he recognizes as his long-lost son, thanks to similarities in their garrulous and vapid nonstop talking. And in distant Westeros, Hillary Clinton watches it all from afar, watching and plotting and waiting for her chance to reenter the Game and once again face the King of the Dead and his (Mostly) White Walkers.

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